Forget the metaverse, the future is in the ‘natureverse’

This blog from Francois Mosnier, head of oceans programme, Planet Tracker, argues that the metaverse is being treated as the biggest innovation of our time; something that could completely change the way we live, love, work, play and transact, but that efforts could instead be focused on our planet.

Forget the metaverse, the future is in the ‘natureverse’

More than 70% of the respondents argued that the industry is falling behind on developing sustainable technologies.

The metaverse is being treated as the biggest innovation of our time; something that could completely change the way we live, love, work, play and transact.

But what is it doing for the biggest challenges of our time – climate change and biodiversity loss? At its core, very little.

Meanwhile, the natureverse – a perfect mirroring of the natural world by persistent digital worlds (financial markets) – could hold the answer but remains relatively unexplored.

We are at a crossroads with two futures ahead of us: one in which the metaverse dissociates us further from our collapsing natural capital, the other in which financial markets and the economy they fuel are perfectly aligned with natural constraints, and nature-based solutions and ecosystem services are fully valued and integrated into economic and financial decisions.

Metaverse vs. natureverse: a dissociated future

One of the most appealing characteristics of the metaverse – a virtual universe that combines aspects of the digital and physical worlds – is the promise of a better reality: one in which air is clean, nature pristine and dreams come true at the click of a button or wave of a hand. The more nature retreats in the real world, the more we retreat to virtual worlds where that isn’t the case.

In the UK now, three-quarters of children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates, and less than one in 10 children regularly plays in wild spaces, compared to half of children a generation ago. Similarly, the average American child spends about four to seven minutes a day playing outside and over seven hours a day in front of a screen. Two-thirds of them spend over six hours a week playing online game Fortnite.

As global biodiversity declines, the number of hours the world population spends online increases. Whether that’s correlation or coincidence, it’s a problematic combination.

In this context, the fact that hugely influential businesses are encouraging us to dedicate even further time, attention and money to the metaverse with little word as to the climate-related reasons or effects is highly concerning. As a case in point, parent companies of Fortnite and Lego announced in April they would both invest  $1bn to build a ‘child-friendly metaverse’. It’s scary to think what this could mean for future generations’ conceptions of environment.

Metaverse for natureverse: a collaborative future

Fortunately, there is a world in which financial markets could be in symbiosis with nature, and big tech could help.

In this imaginary natureverse, financial markets fuel a nature-inclusive economy with no unpriced externalities, while the metaverse keeps us on our toes by helping to avoid shifting baseline syndrome.

Shifting baseline syndrome means that our collective conceptions of what is ‘wild’ or pristine in nature today would have actually been deemed by our ancestors as terribly degraded, and what we consider degraded might well be seen as the norm by our children. This is incredibly difficult for the human brain to conceptualise independently. Outside of our grandparents’ declarations of what it was like in ‘the good old days’, there is little daily evidence for us to easily observe.

The metaverse could actually help overcome that barrier by providing a digital twin of the existing natural world – a virtual copy of our planet’s natural landscapes – which we could compare to the real world. All differences and the reasons for these differences could be monitored over time, allowing everyone to see how the world would look without the negative impacts of companies and governments. And the very fact that it is virtual would remind us that, whilst there could be a planet 2.0, there is no Planet B.

Choosing the right path forward

The global economy could lose as much as $2.7trn a year by 2030 if countries continue to destroy biodiversity, according to the World Bank. Another estimate from the Boston Consulting Group put the cost of lost natural services at $5trn a year today.

In contrast, the upper range of the annual amount of funding that is required to reverse the global decline in biodiversity is just under a trillion dollars – sizeable, but still significantly less than the amount countries spend on environmentally harmful subsidies every year.

Therefore, an alignment of financial markets and economies with nature is financially a far better alternative than the eventual enormous market shocks that biodiversity collapse would inevitably trigger.

To move us forward into the right future, companies from all areas and disciplines must be incentivised to band together to contribute to the construction of the natureverse, just as companies have begun co-ordinating in the building and operation of the metaverse. Nature-focused civil society organisations, companies dependent on natural resources and those with financial exposure to nature-dependent companies all have a huge stake, and should thus be leading the way.

To keep companies accountable and remove any unpriced externalities, the mining and aggregation of biodiversity data must be made a priority, for it would enable comprehensive, comparable valuations, leading ecosystem services to be integrated into day-to-day economic and financial decisions.

Investment should be directed towards a promising financial industry: biodiversity finance and nature-based solutions (NBS). NBS are a category of assets in which businesses, governments and citizens can invest in order to work with nature, instead of seeing it as a barrier to economic development and progress. Monetisation might come via nature-related financing instruments, such as deforestation-linked bonds, or blue recovery bonds, or via offsets.

A successful natureverse will also require a recalibration of domestic budgets, tax policies and regulation, a transition towards sustainable supply chains, and greater usage of natural infrastructure like mangroves and green roofs.

Fortunately, unlike the metaverse, much of the technology required – such as spatial finance and satellite-based monitoring – already exists. It just needs to be funded and mainstreamed.

There’s a lot to do – but it is worth it. Let’s live in the future!

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie